After more than 20 years of rivalling the established European premium brands for luxury appeal, Lexus is increasingly turning its attention to matching them for sporting appeal, too.
It is doing so both with a small number of purpose-built performance machines such as the IS-F (a BMW M3 rival), and the no-holds-barred LFA supercar, and through offering F-Sport performance kits on other models in its range.
F-Sport (in which the F stands for Flagship, Fast, or Fuji, depending on whom you talk to) is to Lexus what M-Sport is to BMW or S-Line to Audi; a set of enhancements to standard models that typically add exterior and interior styling tweaks, and more serious underlying developments to improve handling.
F-Sport improvements are available on every variant in the new GS line-up, with the F-Sport version of the GS450H the king of the range.
Even without F-Sport, the new GS shapes up pretty well. Rear-wheel drive, a feature critical to matching BMW's 5-series and Mercedes' E-Class for image, is retained but with the fresh fundamentals of a new chassis and new suspension.
Its styling, featuring distinctive cues about the nose destined for wider use in the Lexus family, gives the car greater presence and a stronger personality than its predecessor.
Thanks in part to extra width and height in the body shell, the interior is roomier than before, too, and has a fresh new look while maintaining the quality feel that is a core characteristic of the GS.
With the 450H, hybrid technology is also to the fore, though aside from a cunning repacking of the batteries to liberate more boot space there is not much new mechanically: the new 450H retains its predecessor's combination of a 3.5-litre V6 Atkinson cycle petrol engine operating in conjunction with the Lexus (Toyota) second-generation electric hybrid system.
Peak outputs are rated at a 213kW and 345Nm, and when the car's six-stage CVT transmission is called on to deliver the maximum possible power to the rear wheels, the GS450H can sprint from 0-100kmh in a brisk 6.1 seconds.
The GS450H has achieved standard cycle economy return of 6.3 litres per 100 kilometres, though this was not a figure Drivesouth was able to replicate on test. We managed 7.1/100km during an extended highway drive, and 7.9/100km across the entire test.
Adding $8000 to the usual $134,900 asking price for the GS450H, the F-Sport kit leaves the GS mechanically unaltered, but changes it in just about every other way.
More aggressive detailing about the nose and tail are the obvious exterior cues, along with 19-inch rather than 18-inch alloys and lower-profile tyres to match. Look a little closer and you'll also see larger brakes up front and an active high-beam function for the headlights.
Inside, leather trim, deep-pile carpets, dual-zone climate control, a premium audio system, satellite navigation and Bluetooth interfaces for phone and audio devices are provided.
Like the standard GS450H, the F-Sport features a blind-spot monitoring system in the door mirrors and a reversing camera with parking assist. Sports pedals, a sports steering wheel, a power-operated sunshade for the rear window, a head-up display (for speed, tachometer, audio, and navigation) all come as part of the F-Sport kit, along with a 16-way power-operated driver's sports seat.
All this extra kit, and especially the superbly supportive driver's seat, was most welcome on the test car. Bold reddish-brown leather trim (officially the colour is garnet) and some nice metallic highlighting gave the cabin an extra lift.
However, when it comes to matching the Europeans for genuine sporting prowess, the key F-Sport add-ons - gathered under the name Lexus Dynamic Handling - are out of sight. They encompass dynamic rear-wheel steering (in which the rear wheels steer in the opposite direction to the fronts at under 80kmh to give more nimble handling, but in the same direction at higher speeds for stability), and both variable ratios and weighting for the steering.
As well as being strikingly quick in a straight-line (and therefore devilishly good for snappy overtaking), the test car was precise and sure-footed through fast and medium-speed corners, and can be thrown into tight, demanding bends with confidence.
That confidence, it must be said, was inspired more by the car's ability to suffer such treatment without loss of composure than by its ability to thrill the driver while doing so; while the chassis and suspension are accomplished, the steering lacks for on-the-limit feel.
Fortunately, that additional handling prowess does not exact too high a price on the GS450H F-Sport's ride. Yes, there is a firm underlying feel to its gait, but it is a very comfortable main-road cruiser, albeit generating a lot of coarse-chip road rumble along the way.
Round town, it is smooth and - especially when proceeding for short distances under battery power alone - superbly refined.
However, urban motoring brings with it two annoying niggles: the fiddly mouse-like controller for the multimedia interface, and a satellite navigation system that - at least as configured for me - requires one to know the suburb as well as the street address of one's intended destination.
These irritations aside, the GS450H F-Sport did more than enough to impress. If not quite the sporting rival for the likes of Audi and BMW that Lexus would like it to be, it is certainly a step in the right direction, and one that sets a new performance benchmark for hybrid saloons.
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